Can India choose its defence challenges?



Secretary Chuck Hagel’s whirl-wind India visit, ending August 9, highlights the tight rope India needs to walk, whilst enlarging its defence establishment’s collaborative engagement with the external world.

The opening up of defence production to the private sector, including foreign direct investment, is a sensible, hard-headed, no-brainer, business decision given India’s current volume of defence procurements and expected future expenditure (1% of a fast growing GDP).

What is more difficult to manage and to resist, is the accompanying temptation to take sides in managing the regional strategic and security balance between the US and China.

It is not for nothing that Nehru conceived of non-alignment as a way of ducking such hard choices. Pakistan was the US outpost in South Asia, in their joint global “jihad” against communism in the 1960s. By dispatching an aircraft carrier in 1971 to threaten the Mukti Bahini in erstwhile East Pakistan, the US effectively pushed India  into the lap of the Soviets and there we remained, till Russian penury ended this “special relationship” in the 1990s.  

But much has changed since then, including India’s spectacular, steady, rise as an “aspiring” regional power, courtesy better economic management, post 1990. As Mr. Hagel graciously acknowledged, Jaswant Singh was to the “new” India-US friendship what Nixon was to the China-US détente. Subsequently, the dominance of China, has spurred the US and its regional allies; Japan, Australia and Singapore to look for regional counterweights to China. India is an obvious choice.

For India, if acquisition of front-line technology is our objective and joint defence manufacturing is the intended instrument, clearly it is to the US we must look. There are three reasons for this “look West” approach.

First, the US has no competing interests with India in achieving regional hegemony status. China, on the other hand, is in direct conflict with India on this score.

Second, the US political environment, characterized by freedom of choice and competition, resonates with Indians. Most Indians would choose the US as their country of choice, after their motherland. Some choose it even above their own motherland and good luck to them. China, on the other hand, is a cold, ruthless, ”godless”, factory. Indians find hard to identify with China, nurtured as we all are, on a mélange of an uncaring but “soft” State; faux-religiosity; cultural plurality and a disdain for rules. The last, if regulated, can be the mother of innovation; a light weight equivalent being jugaad (making do).

Third, the US has the best defence technology to offer. Residents in Delhi would feel a lot safer if we had an “Iron Dome” protecting us, like Tel Aviv, from incoming missiles. Collaborating with the US also means spin-offs for technology transfer with other countries in the Western bloc.

But the downsides of a strategic partnership are considerable.

First, the big down side of partnering with the US is, ironically, that it is a democracy and like India, susceptible to public opinion. All US Presidents are guided overwhelmingly by their domestic ratings and are willing to sacrifice inconvenient external engagements and partners towards that end. India suffers the very same democratic compulsions. The two do not make ideal and stable, strategic partners.  

Second, our South Asian neighbours; Srilanka , Nepal and Bangladesh are being actively wooed by China. We are in competition with China there. Becoming strategically aligned with the US is likely to sharpen, rather than diffuse, this unnecessary competition.

Third, Pakistan is part of the arc of Islamic terror, originally cultivated by the US and conveniently used, from time to time, for its own purposes, including to remote control Afghanistan. These incentives and institutional linkages will not go away. So long as it suits the US to covertly retain its links with Islamic Terror, India will remain an easy target.

China on the other hand has a far less ambivalent approach, very similar to that of India; a zero tolerance for Islamic terror. China recognizes that they themselves are susceptible to this threat and being in the neighbourhood, unlike the US, they cannot afford to risk starting a fire they cannot control.

Ironically the Nehruvian vision of non-alignment seems the best option.  

An asymmetric approach seems best. Say yes, to defence manufacturing in partnership with the West to add jobs and boost economic growth in India.   Say no, to partnering the US, or anyone else, in securing the region. India has neither the economic muscle nor the mind space to play the “Great Game”. Having said this, the fact is that, in an integrated world, nations align with the big powers they buy their security assets from. A comfortable relationship is a necessary pre-condition for transfer of sensitive technology. Buying arms and technology from the US consequently means, eventually celebrating “Thanksgiving” in New Delhi.

Before we get there, we first need to get our own fundamentals in place. Chuck Hagel, an erstwhile potential nominee for President of the US and a person who voluntarily enlisted to fight for his country in Vietnam and earned four medals, including the prestigious Purple Heart in the space of two short years; 1967 and 1968, astutely stated today, at an Observer Research Foundation event in New Delhi: “Superpowers do not choose their challenges. They deal with them as they come”. We are clearly not in that league yet and still have to be extremely choosy.

Our fundamental challenge is extreme poverty. One third of our people are caught in that trap. Our first commitment must be to them. This is why creating opportunities for economic growth and jobs via defence manufacturing, fits our objectives perfectly. Swaggering around the neighbourhood, pretending to be a cousin of the Americans, does not.

Nevertheless, we have to step up our spending, to achieve defensive credibility, which we lack today. If the chips are down and the Chinese attack India, we are sunk. This is not acceptable. We must have the ability to inflict sufficient counter damage to pre-empt and limit any Chinese mis-adventure in India.

Stepping up spending on equipment and defence capital assets will put significant fiscal pressure on our budget resources. Our blue water Navy, our Air Force and our Army are hopelessly antiquated and under provided. Our domestic and external intelligence networks similarly require a capacity upgrade. All this means big bucks, which we don’t really have.

This is why we must pursue the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative but shun any grandiose notion of partnering the US in joint surveillance of the Indian and Greater Pacific Oceans; we must equip our Air Force and Army to defend the icy heights of Siachin; assert our sovereignty in Arunachal Pradesh and defend the line of control in Kashmir, but not adventure to reclaim land not held by us today.

Chuck Hagel propounded the concept of P2: “Power with Principles” which binds India and the US. For India the applicable concept is P4: “Power though Prosperity, Parity and Principles”.



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